Last Sunday evening I told the Mark discussion group that this was a tough Sunday for preaching. Every other Sunday of the year the lectionary, the suggested set of scripture readings for each Sunday, provides four options – a First Testament lesson, a reading from the Psalms, a Gospel lesson, and a Second Testament reading. For some reason, however, on Palm Sunday, the lectionary lists the Palm Sunday story from one of the gospels, plus select verses from Psalm 118. Period. And it’s always the Palm Sunday story plus the reading from Psalm 118. Every year.
So, Jesus rides into Jerusalem on an animal – the animal varies a bit from gospel to gospel, including Matthew, who says Jesus rode in on two animals – the crowds are excited, and then Jesus leaves the scene. That’s pretty much the story. Ok, time for communion.
Yeah, you wish. It really is a rather simple, straightforward story. We know that by this time Jesus has been going from place to place, teaching, healing people, and performing other miracles. We know that he has attracted crowds, who have been impressed with what he has to say and what he has done. So it is no great surprise that the residents of Jerusalem and those who happened to be visiting would be excited to see him. But the story does invite a few questions. So since we have a few minutes before communion, indulge me as we consider a few why questions.
First, why has Jesus come to Jerusalem? Mark simply says, “When they [Jesus and his disciples] were approaching Jerusalem.” He doesn’t give us any hint, at least at this point, as to why Jesus has come to Jerusalem. Is it just the next logical stop in his travels? Does he want to visit the temple? Or does he have another reason?
Why he has come to Jerusalem is a good question, because Mark has told us that the authorities, both religious and secular, are not necessarily fans of Jesus. Up to this point Jesus has had various run ins with the likes of the scribes and Pharisees and Sadducees. These Jewish leaders – and remember that Jesus and all of this followers at this point are faithful Jews – are at least suspicious of Jesus, if not outright hostile. To them Jesus represents a threat to what they stand for, namely their particular interpretation of scripture and their way of practicing the faith.
To us that may seem trivial. We are very accustomed to Christians having very different readings of the Bible and very different ways of living out our dedication to following Jesus. We don’t mind having debates and discussions about what it means to be Christian with those who disagree with us. But fortunately we don’t often try to kill those with whom we disagree.
In Judaism at that time there is a difference of opinion about how to live out faith in God, even before Jesus comes on the scene. The Pharisees and Sadducees disagreed on various issues. But to a large extent they can agree to disagree. Their differences are not so significant that they cannot live side by side and continue their discussions and debates. Jesus, however, comes along with some radical new ways of looking at scripture and being faithful to God. He says it’s more about relationships, with God and with other people, than it is about following a long list of rules. He says what you do in your day to day living is more important than following a bunch of rituals. And for the Pharisees and Sadducees, that’s radical stuff. That hits them where they live, because they live by the rules and the rituals. So they naturally think he’s all wrong. And they are naturally worried that he is so popular among the people.
On the secular side, King Herod, the Roman ruler, has caught wind of Jesus. Mark gives us a rather lengthy account of the death of John the Baptist, telling us that Herod has John beheaded. Mark also reports that Herod believes that Jesus is John come back to life. That can’t bode well for Jesus. Herod’s concern is for peace and stability is his realm. He wants to make sure nobody is out there trying to stir the pot against the Romans, foreigners who have conquered the land and remain in control. He wants to head off any potential uprising at the pass. And Mark says he has Jesus on his radar.
So why does Jesus come to Jerusalem? Jesus has told the twelve, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death.” Jesus goes to Jerusalem because he understands that he is supposed to, because he knows that he has to be in Jerusalem in order to do what he has been called to do. Come at 7:00 on Thursday night and Friday night to get a clearer picture of what he has been called by God to do.
The next why is why a parade? Throughout Mark’s gospel, Jesus has been telling people to keep quiet about him. He tells Peter, James and John not to tell anybody about what they experienced on the Mount of Transfiguration. Jesus heals a blind man and instructs him to go straight home, without telling anyone what Jesus has done for him. When Peter says that Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus “sternly” orders the disciples not to tell anyone.
Mark never tells us why Jesus wants to keep his powers and his identity a secret. Maybe he realizes people will not understand, or they will misunderstand what it means to say that he is the Messiah. After all, the prevailing idea at the time is that the Messiah will be a warrior king who will lead a rebellion, overthrow the Romans, and reestablish the kingdom of David. Obviously that was never Jesus’ intention. So perhaps Jesus knows that it will take his resurrection for people to finally grasp who he is and what God has done through him.
So why a parade? Obviously it is Jesus’ idea. Half of the Palm Sunday story, as we will hear, is the report about preparations for the event. Jesus takes the initiative by sending two disciples to get a colt for him. There is no hint that Jesus is surprised by the people’s reaction to his entry into Jerusalem. In spite of his attempts to keep things quiet, word about him has spread. But why does he orchestrate this public demonstration? Again, Mark doesn’t say. For some reason Jesus believes the time has come for this sort of event.
The answer may lie in the answer to the last why question – why this kind of parade? From what I gather it was not especially unusual for people to spread branches on the road to welcome a hero. I don’t know about people spreading their cloaks, their outer garments. Even the best of roads in those days were pretty rough; they would have been made of stones. So perhaps the branches and cloaks were meant to make the person’s ride smoother and more comfortable, as a sign of honor to whomever.
But there are a couple of unusual aspects to Jesus’ parade. First, he is riding a colt, a young horse, or a donkey, depending on which gospel you’re reading. Had he been a conquering hero warrior who had just won a major battle or a war, he would have been riding a grand stallion, a fully grown, majestic horse, not a little horse or a donkey. The other unusual part was that it is barely a parade at all. It was just Jesus, and presumably his closest followers. The conquering hero would have had with him rank after rank of soldiers, and perhaps captive enemies. But on that first Palm Sunday, it was just Jesus.
So why this kind of parade? It may not be a surprise to find out that Mark doesn’t tell us. All we get is the what, not the why. So again, we have to work from context, from everything else Mark does say. And what he says is that Jesus is not interested in overthrowing the Romans and being established as a political king. He is not interested in military conquest. His mission is very different. His mission is to bring the good news of God’s love in a new way. It’s not that before Jesus God didn’t love people. The First Testament is very clear that God loves humankind and wants us to love God and love one another in return.
The problem is that what God has tried in the past, the covenants with Abraham and Moses and David, haven’t worked, at least not to God’s satisfaction. Jesus brings a new covenant, a new arrangement between God and we human beings. This covenant says God forgives us, God saves us from the consequences of our sins, just by our faith through Jesus. And Jesus doesn’t have to kick the Romans out of Palestine. He doesn’t have to raise an army. He simply needs a few people to start spreading the good news.
Why this kind of parade? To demonstrate that he is a different kind of Messiah from what people have expected. To remind even his closest followers that he has come to Jerusalem for a particular purpose, to give his life so that they may have new life. That’s why. That’s why we have come to worship. Even on a Monday evening. Amen.